We spent our final week in Southeast Asia on a fabulous stretch of beach on the smaller of the two Perhentian Islands. I tossed my shoes off the boat that ferried us to the silky sand and didn’t put them on again until we returned to the mainland. Our time there was beautiful and relaxing, plus we tossed a few dives in for good measure. Here’s a small vivid excerpt from a journal entry I wrote there:
Sitting on the front porch of our little wooden hut, set up about 40 meters from the water, I can still hear the rhythmic hum of the waves thrashing and receding against the fine white sand. Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil tops my charts for the best beach I’ve ever experienced — and after seven months in Southeast Asia that’s saying a lot. The water is turquoise with a series of white caps floating across a gentle surf and entices Nathanael and I into swimming a few times a day, splashing around like hyperactive children.
Our third day on the island, our friend Mikey, one of the South Sea Nomads from Padre Burgos, arrived to begin his forth or fifth season of working and diving on the island. Funds are pretty low (read: depleted) at this point, so we only managed to do three dives, one reef clean-up dive, specifically removing the destructive and abundant crown-of-thorns starfish, and two with Mikey at some of the best spots in the area: Temple and T3. The latter was especially dynamic, composed of giant granite boulders that resembled underwater ruins with plenty of swim-throughs and we found six different types of nudis. Between diving and snorkeling (which we did quite a bit of) we saw loads of humphead parrotfish, more blue spotted ribbon tail rays than any where we’ve been, green turtles, schools of yellow snapper, giant groupers and a lot of other tropical fish.
We spent our evenings on the beach, listening to music, smoking shisha and drinking “monkey juice” (a local whiskey called Orang utan). A big thanks to Mikey for making our last week amazing! Perhentian Kecil is truly an island paradise and there’s no better way we could have spent it.
In the middle of the cave, we switched off our flashlights to find ourselves in complete darkness, surrounded by the sound of hundreds of swiflets clicking and water slowly dripping from above. The air felt damp, having long ago surrendered to the unique and putrid smell of guano (bat droppings) that burned our noses. We were in the aptly named Great Cave in Niah National Park, the second largest in Borneo’s grand system, rivaled only by Mulu’s Deer Cave featured in BCC’s Planet Earth (it looks like the same caves to us).
We walked about 3.5 km down a raised wooden path through primary rainforest to reach the caves. First through Trader’s Cave, named for the people who make their living from harvesting swiflets’ nests and guano. Skeletons of wooden shacks still remain from a time when the local traders lived in this cave, which is more like a massive carved out overhang, a cave missing one side. The effect is stunning, stalagtites hanging against a jungle background on one side, a towering roof of limestone above. Swiflet nests are considered a delicacy throughout Asia and are commonly worth about $2000 per kilo, similar to the cost of silver. Harvesting the nests is a big business and to ensure a balance between tourism and tradition, a commision has been regulating the harvesting since the 1950s.
A short walk leads next into the Great Cave. We strayed from the path to walk across a dirt floor into the dark, where openings in the ceiling revealed thick beams of light and the sounds of the bats and swiflets became more pronounced. We then decended a flight of over a hundred stairs into the cave. The cavern just seemed to keep going. Up and down a few more flights of stairs, passing through a few more beams of lights bursting through the roof, then into the deepest, darkest area. This is where we turned off our lights to experience total darkness.
Finally, we arrived at Painted Cave, an archeological gem where a 40,000 year-old skull from a modern homo sapien was discovered, and the site of cave paintings depicting boat journeys into the afterlife dating back to the first century AD. When we visited, an excavated skeleton lay in its grave, now a small roped off area.
After about 2.5 hours of walking through the forest and the cave system, we sat quietly in the serenity of Painted Cave, clearly understanding why the people who lived here so many years ago considered this place sacred.
It took us about 2 hours to make our way back. I hadn’t realized that we would be walking back through the really dark cave, telling Nate that I really enjoyed it the first time, but once was enough. I mean, it was really dark, and just kept going and going before we could see light coming from somewhere other than our weak flashlights. The final leg of our hike was down an offshoot of the main path, which a sign indicated, led to a longhouse. As we made our way down the delapidated path, we climbed over fallen trees and walked through brush that had taken over the path until finally, it was impassable. On the way back, Nate got stung by a jungle bee, then moments later caught his head on a thorny vine and blood spurted everywhere. The thorns on this vine had sliced his head in six different places, and as we learned about a week later, one thorn remained.
I should mention that the hostel where we stayed heped make this trip simple and worry free. We stayed at Dillenia Guesthouse in the wealthy oil town of Miri, where Mrs. Lee makes you feel like you’re home. Borneo’s public transportation system is complicated and even though tourism seems to be a big industry there, they don’t make it easy for tourists to get around. She arranged a car to bring us to the park and back — the driver even packed us a small lunch, provided flashlights and graced us with snacks when we returned. Mrs. Lee also helped us navigate the system to reach Lambir Hills National Park, which was ok — nice trails, great hills, but waterfalls are the highlight and it hadn’t been raining much.
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